When bands strip it down to guitar, bass and drums, I get unstuck in time. People have been exploring that musical space since at least 1967. Mad Monks are definitely standing on the shoulders of giants–as they cite on their Facebook page: Jimi Hendrix, Captain Beefheart, King Crimson, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy. Interestingly, Hendrix influenced them not so much with his wailing guitar style but with the deft, sophisticated songwriting of his later work.
I love me some electronic music but Mad Monks do something a kid with Fruity Loops can’t: they can play. Their songs are more complicated than strictly necessary, but they never go over the edge into arbitrary noodling. They’re also well-served by Luke Tweedy’s recording and mixing. This CD sounds like a band playing in a room, but somehow more focused. Each instrument is clearly defined, without that hyped, piercing sound so common in modern rock.
The opener “Relentless Second” gets prog-rocky-freaky, with tempo changes and modulations galore, but it does so nimbly. The vocals have a real late 60’s feel, very Bay Area Acid Rock. The titanic “All There Is” that closes the album has the most Hendrix-esque shredding and you can definitely hear Jimi in their chord progressions.
“The Omen” starts with a stately bit of blues marching music before modulating down chromatically into the verse, whose sophisticated melodic twists make this the most overtly pretty song on the CD. It’s the ‘one for the ladies’–the ballad all metal bands used to put on every album. But I’m a guy and I think it’s an ace song–there’s enough melodic meat here for the Bad Plus to do a jazz cover.
Above all, Mad Monks rock, brilliantly. ‘Tasteful Rock’ is an oxymoron, but the Mad Monk style is a collection of impulses and gestures that, if taken too far, could be ludicrous. They have a lot to give but give only what a thoughtful headbanger needs, no more.